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Clippers-Bulls Preview: Keeping the Ship Afloat

Neither the Los Angeles Clippers nor the Chicago Bulls are close to full strength, yet both teams are coming off of blowout victories against the Los Angeles Lakers. Even with key players missing, the Bulls are a talented team, and the Clippers will need to play at a high level in order to notch their fourth consecutive victory.

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports
2015/2016 NBA Regular Season
Los Angeles Clippers (31-16)

Chicago Bulls (26-19)
January 31, 2016 | 12:30 PM (PDT)
ABC, KFWB 980 AM, KWKW 1330 AM
Projected Starters
Chris Paul PG Derrick Rose
J.J. Redick SG Jimmy Butler
Luc Richard Mbah a Moute SF E'Twaun Moore
Paul Pierce PF Taj Gibson
DeAndre Jordan C Pau Gasol
Advanced Stats (2015-2016 Regular Season)
96.1 (12th of 30) Pace 96.0 (13th of 30)
107.6 (6th of 30) ORtg 103.8 (23rd of 30)
103.9 (11th of 30) DRtg 102.8 (6th of 30)
Blake Griffin OUT
Mike Dunleavy; Joakim Noah; Nikola Mirotic
Kirk Hinrich; Jimmy Butler

Season Series (Bulls lead Clippers, 1-0):

These two teams last faced off in Chicago on December 10, 2015. As everyone likely recalls, Blake Griffin was assessed a Flagrant-2 Foul on Bulls forward Taj Gibson in the third quarter. The Clippers were already staring down a double-digit deficit when their star went to the locker room, but the team launched a furious comeback and managed to tie the game in the fourth quarter. However, they would go on to lose 80-83, largely due to the stellar play of Chicago's Pau Gasol.

The Big Picture:

The Clippers hope to make it four victories in a row when they face off against the Chicago Bulls at Staples Center on Sunday afternoon. Chris Paul recently reminded everyone that this Clippers team is a "resilient" one, and their recent play has more than proven him right. It would have been easy for the players to lose focus after learning that Griffin would be sidelined for at least 4-6 weeks, but they have continued to play hard and win games (winning three out of their last four games). Even when their offense has abandoned them for stretches, the Clippers have been able to rely on their defense, which certainly helped them score impressive victories on the road in both Indiana and Atlanta.

In their win against the Los Angeles Lakers on Friday, Paul was excellent, but the Clippers were largely buoyed by the stellar play of their reserves. The bench has been an ongoing thorn in the side of Doc Rivers ever since his arrival in Los Angeles, and this year is no exception. The play of the reserves has been up and down all season, but they have strung together a couple of nice games since their putrid outing in Toronto on January 24. Austin Rivers played very well against the other Los Angeles team, scoring 17 points (8 of 14 from the field). Also, although he has been in mothballs almost the entire season, Lance Stephenson (6'5") came into the game as the backup power forward and lit the Lakers up for 17 points (6 of 7 from the field), 5 rebounds, and 2 assists. He also had this insane dunk over Julius Randle:

Doc Rivers has not yet figured out how to integrate the mercurial but undeniably talented Stephenson, and it is unclear what future, if any, the guard has with this team. It is obvious that Stephenson can be helpful, but he received playing because Paul Pierce was held out of the Lakers game to rest. Pierce will likely play in the Bulls game, and it remains to be seen if the coach will make an effort to squeeze Stephenson into the rotation.

It would also be wonderful to see Griffin attend the Bulls game, as he was not at Staples Center on Friday night. He has been away from the team (and the public) since he threw the infamous punch last weekend, and his continued absence will only fuel the onslaught of trade rumors swirling around him. Although it may certainly be uncomfortable for Griffin to be near the media, it seems important that he be at games to support his teammates. If Griffin continues to stay away from Staples Center, it will give the impression that any estrangement from the Clippers organization might be irreparable.

The Antagonist:

It has been a weird, streaky season for the Chicago Bulls. The team notched an impressive 96-83 victory against Cleveland on January 23, but they have lost 3 out of their last 5 games. The team is still adapting to new Head Coach Fred Hoiberg, who replaced defensive-minded Tom Thibodeau. Hoiberg was supposed to improve the offense, but the team's offensive rating is in the bottom half of the league. The defense has remained stalwart though, and the Bulls have the third best record in the Eastern Conference. Another bright spot for the Bulls is that they have a truly excellent shooting guard in Jimmy Butler, recently honored with an All-Star selection. Butler is averaging 22.3 points, 4.3 assists, and 5.3 rebounds. However, Butler's rise seems to have complicated his relationship with former MVP Derrick Rose, as recent reports suggest that the two have chemistry issues that need to be ironed out in order for the Bulls to reach their full potential.

The injury bug has also not been kind to the Bulls. Mike Dunleavy Jr. has been out all season due to a back injury. Center Joakim Noah has been lost for the entire season due to a shoulder injury. Power Forward Nikola Mirotic is unavailable until after the All-Star break due to an appendectomy. Butler himself tweaked his ankle during practice yesterday, but he is expected to play against the Clippers.

Key Matchup (Chris Paul/J.J. Redick vs. Derrick Rose/Jimmy Butler):

The battle of the guards should be fascinating. Statistically, Rose is not having a knockout year, averaging 15.3 points and 4.5 assists. Since his devastating injuries, Rose has not always looked like his MVP self, but he remains a premier point guard in this league, and it is always exciting to see the ultra-competitive Paul face off against elite competition. Paul is having an amazing season, and he is carrying the team in Griffin's absence. He is averaging 18.8 points and 9.6 assists per game, and he is shooting 38.9% from downtown. The competition between shooting guards Redick and Butler should also be a fun one. Butler is an excellent defender, and Redick is shooting 47.7% from beyond the arc. Redick is coming off of an atrocious game against the Lakers, so it is important that he bounce back against the Bulls.